20 Questions with Mark Scarbrough

Mark Scarbrough

20 Questions is a Q&A interview series with musicians, authors, and everyone in between, celebrating experiences both shared and individual in the messy game of being human.

“When you read, you let someone else colonize your thoughts. It looks like a lovely thing to do on a cold evening in front of the fire. I think it’s one of the bravest things anyone ever does. You cede control. Willingly.” Mark Scarbrough is the author of more than 30 cookbooks, has made countless national television appearances cooking up a storm and laughs, and hosts three successful podcasts. But behind all the food, spotlights, and fun lies a deeper story. Scarbrough has been searching for something his entire life. Whether it’s his birth mother, true love, his purpose, or his sexual identity, he has been on a constant quest to find out who he really is, with the great Western texts as his steadfast companions. As a boy with his head constantly in a book, desperate to discover new worlds, he can hardly distinguish between their plots and his own reality.

The adopted child of strict Texan Evangelicals, Scarbrough is taught by the Bible to fervently believe in the rapture and second coming and is thus moved to spend his teen years as a youth preacher in cowboy boots. At college, he discovers William Blake, who teaches him to fall in love with poems, lyrics… and his roommate Alex. Raised to believe that to be gay was to be a sinner, Scarbrough is driven to the brink of madness and attempts suicide. Hoping to avoid books once and for all, he joins the seminary, where he meets his wife, Miranda. Neither the seminary nor the marriage stick, and the author once again finds himself turning to his books for the sense of belonging he continues to seek.

In the tradition of beloved titles like The End of Your Life Book Club, Reading Lolita in Tehran, and The Year of Reading Dangerously, Scarbrough’s memoir — Bookmarked: How the Great Works of Western Literature F*cked Up My Life — tells a deeply personal story through the lens of literature. An examination of one man’s complicated, near-obsessive relationship with books, and how they shaped, molded, ruined and saved him, Bookmarked is about how we readers stash our secrets between jacket covers and how those secrets ultimately get told in the ways that the books themselves demand.

I had the privilege of chatting with Mark for the latest edition of 20 Questions, where he told me all about what inspired his jump from cookbooks to a memoir, his love of Emily Dickinson, the lifelong quest to belong, why it’s always important to read cautiously, trying to connect directly with readers in an age of distraction, and more.

Growing up, did you always want to be a writer?

Absolutely not. I grew up in a middle-class Dallas, Texas, home with a neck-tied, white-collared dad who went to work every weekday promptly at 7:30 a.m. and came home every evening at 5:30 p.m. to find a hot dinner on the table. When I declared I wanted to be pre-med in college, my parents chalked it up to my being “arty.”

If you could pick one author that’s inspired you the most, who would it be and why?

Emily Dickinson. Not because I look best in white, mind you. But because Dickinson knew exactly what it took to knife up those jagged poems from the bones of her body. She preserved herself to write what she had to write. I don’t aspire to her austerity. I aspire to her commitment.

You’re the author of more than 30 cookbooks and the host of three successful podcasts, but Bookmarked is your attempt at getting your own life down on paper. What compelled you the most to commit your story to memoir?

I wanted to work through my own strange and (at times) psychotic relationship with the books I would read. I’d been primed for this, a kid in a Christian fundamentalist home. The Good Book delivered messages on how to live your life. If it did, others could, too, right? And in all truth, I started out writing a piece to explain how I once spent the night in the arms of the eighteenth-century poet William Blake. Bookmarked went from there.

Favorite book of all-time?

Here’s my problem: I am of time. Which also means I’m a quantum reality. Which means this answer is never the same. It’s often something by Henry James: The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors. It’s often something by William Faulkner, particularly Absalom, Absalom! I had an almost orgasmic response to Mrs. Dalloway the last time I read it three years ago. (I read all five volumes of her journals in about two weeks after that. I think Woolf would be pleased.) Right now, I seem to be all about Dante.

If you could have one writer, dead or alive, to compose your obituary, who would it be and why?

We’re back to Emily Dickinson. She could condense me to a few syllables. I’m hoping for one exquisite, elliptical quatrain, even though Bookmarked is about 90K words.

The best book you’ve read in the last year?

I’d have to go with Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road. Maybe it’s because of my own brushes with insanity which get told in Bookmarked. Maybe it’s because of the incredible craft shown in Kolker’s truth-filled but highly constructed writing. Maybe it’s because the saddest moments of that book are those in which one of the two sisters holds hope for her youngest schizophrenic brother even when it’s clear that all hope is lost.

What time of day are you most inspired?

After 35 cookbooks, plus more ghosted for celebs, plus my own memoir, I find it’s best if I get up, make coffee, go to my desk, set to writing as the sun comes up behind the mountain of our New England home. I’ve read that Haruki Murakami and Philip Roth both liked to be done writing by mid-morning each day. I’m not that nuts! But I do like that sort of discipline. I find that if I let the morning slip by, I have nothing to write in the afternoon.

What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?

To quit revising as I go. In Bookmarked, I’d get a chapter done, start another, then obsessively go back to the previous chapter and rewrite it. That’s nuts, given that the current third chapter was the first in so many drafts and that the last four chapters are about fifty pages lighter than in some of the original drafts. In other words, it’s self-defeating to try to perfect something before I have a sense of the whole. But boy, knowing that doesn’t stop me from trying!

Favorite social media app?

I use them differently. My Facebook feed is all about the cookbook part of my life, the part I lead with my husband who is the chef in our duo. My Instagram feed is much more about my life in New England. On Twitter, I’m much more connected to other writers. Curiously, mostly to poets. Probably because their language is so crafted and precise, unlike mine which tends to sprawl out like this sentence.

As an adopted child, what did it mean for you to learn how to “fit in”?

My family was Republican, middle America, and 9-to-5 business. They were also fundamentalist Christians. I was a bad match. When I got my drivers’ license at sixteen, the first thing I did was buy tickets to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. But I worked hard to believe the way they wanted me to. I could recite giant passages out of the Bible. I outlined all of the prophets in black binders. I thought doing all that made me make sense, not to myself, but to them.

One song that you will never be sick of?

Don’t judge: Bach’s Goldberg Variations. I listen to them almost every day.

The last series you binge-watched?

My husband and I only stream TV in binge form. In fact, we wait for a series to end its season—like Succession on HBO—before we ever start watching it. We just finished Foundation on Apple+. I hear we’re off to Port Mortem on Netflix tonight.

Having written a memoir over the age of 50, how would you describe the importance of sharing your story at any age?

Memoir is a thrust stage and autobiography, a proscenium arch. And as you get older, you start to retreat behind the proscenium. Just look at your grandparents. But when you’re younger, you’re more comfortably out in the middle of the audience. (At least, many authors are.) You start to retreat behind facades, the more you have time to build them. But it’s important to step out into the crowd. We don’t live in a proscenium age: Instagram, Twitter, TikTok. Our life is thrust theater. And that’s the most important thing you can do: try to connect directly with a reader.

One movie that will always make you cry?

I cry at commercials! I was thinking about watching Ordinary People again. I remember watching it at the movie theater for the first time in Dallas when I was in my twenties. It knocked me over. I came out and it was snowing, a rare event in Dallas, and I sat in my car, crying and listening to Dan Fogelberg. Gack! But it was so perfect! So maybe I better not watch it again. I’d try to stage it like that and end up disappointed.

What’s your current read?

I’m currently reading Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge about the destruction of classical knowledge in the West after the fall of Rome and Ian Pisarcik’s Before Familiar Woods, a truly harrowing but gorgeous novel with resonances of the opioid crisis in New England.

As a writer and artist, what would you say is the best way to rest or decompress?

Walking my collies down long lonely country roads. I just let the two dogs take me. They know what I need. They lead me to brooks and birds, trees and fields. I often recite poetry to them. They don’t seem to mind.

Among many topics, Bookmarked explores the idea of the dangers of reading too much and how the classics can really screw with your mind. How would you recommend reading with caution?

There is no other moment in which you let another consciousness overtake yours. Sure, you’ve got other voices in your head: your parents’, your lovers’, your siblings’, maybe professors’ or ministers’. But those are competing against each other and your own voice. When you read, you let someone else colonize your thoughts. It looks like a lovely thing to do on a cold evening in front of the fire. I think it’s one of the bravest things anyone ever does. You cede control. Willingly.

Many of us struggle with anxious voices in our heads. How did you manage to start claiming your own, and what’s one piece of advice you give to others looking to do the same?

I needed to locate my voice in my body, not in my head. I worked very hard to figure out where certain pieces of my voice lay inside my physical self. For Bookmarked, my memoir, I worked with an editor who asked me to spend several hours a day naked. No joke. To watch TV naked. To eat dinner naked. I got used to feeling what it was like to be exposed. And to get scared I was exposed. And then to go back to it as if it were no big deal. It was a transformative experience. (And thank heavens we live a long way from anyone in a very rural part of the United States.)

One thing that’s been keeping you sane throughout the COVID-19 pandemic?

I host the only podcast that slow-walks through Dante’s masterpiece, Comedy. I have thrown myself into Walking With Dante over COVID-19, a lifeline to staying creative and engaged even when I’m on my own in my office.

What can we expect to see next from you?

Well, another cookbook, to be honest. We have one due on December 15th to Little, Brown. But I also have a novel in fragments on my laptop. It’s about a tour-aid clerk, back in the 1950s when oil companies hired young women to help drivers plot their course across the country in a pre-Interstate world. This clerk has never been anywhere, but she ends up almost by accident on a cross-country trip and in the company of some crazy people, including Wernher von Braun. She also may bear a slight resemblance to my mother.

Follow Mark Scarbrough on Twitter and Instagram, and find his memoir Bookmarked: How the Great Works of Western Literature F*cked Up My Life wherever books are sold.